The world of customer service is getting a whole lot more interesting these days with the global uptake of smart phones and social media.
In the customers-versus-staff war, both sides are firing off (or should I say ranting) online in videos such as ‘I hate rude customers’, ‘Rant: Rude Customers’, ‘Sh*t Retail Customers Say’ and ‘Why I hate customers in retail’.
Principal of the Human Performance Company, Bill Lang is not a fan of the customer rant. “It only reinforces the belief that customers are a problem. It also goes against the Chinese proverb: a man without a smiley face must not open a shop.”
Workers in a wide range of customer-facing industries, including hospitality, retail, utilities, healthcare and government, are now exposed to the acute stresses of difficult customers. This introduces a whole new era of risk for organisations.
The expense of complaints
Forensic accountant and director of Rushmore Forensic, Andrew Firth is frank about how expensive and time consuming these compensation cases can be and they tend to drag on.
“Over that time, often there is a second injury,” he says, such as further psychological stress or depression from being on workers’ compensation. “The amount of time it takes with the employee, the insurance company and external forensics, the cost really is high,” he says. Either the company or the insurance company will be liable.
Training and coaching
Sales training specialists Barrett Consulting works with companies including Deloitte, Southern Cross Media and RACV and likes to follow the motto of Barrett’s sales strategist Peter Finkelstein: “make promises you can keep and keep promises that you make.”
Sue Barrett’s approach is to ensure staff understand where they can help customers and where they can’t, and to understand exactly what the sales offer is.
“Most reasonable people will work with you,” she says. “Ultimately it boils down to whether your business is customer-centric or not. This doesn’t mean that you do everything for customers, because you can’t. But you should be very clear about what you can do and you should deliver on that.”
Barrett believes the retail sector is in a tough situation. Customers are enjoying the new pricing landscape of lowest possible prices (kettles for $5, $25 air fares, $70 coffee machines) yet still expect high levels of customer service.
“We are left with customers rolling their eyes over poor service,” she says. “And customers who pay for a plastic cup and expect service as if it is a crystal vase. Everyone needs a reality check.”
Organisational psychologist and professor at the Australian Catholic University, Jim Bright runs a series of workshops to deal with difficult customers. The sessions teach strategies to deal with the psychological and physiological aspects of stress.
“In extreme situations, we teach people how to literally switch off so they don’t have to hear it,” he says.
Bright teaches people that there are other coping strategies besides toxic ranting. A run, walking the dog, even a lap around the block for some fresh air (in other words, working on physical resilience) will help more than continuing to rant.
Often disgruntled staff will move off the shop floor, into the staff room and start ranting. “You keep alive that customer’s view in your downtime and non-customer-facing time,” says Bright. “You offload it but what about all the other poor buggers? All you are going to hear in these sessions is negativity about customers.”
Learning mental control
“It can be about understanding that this person is not angry at me, this person is angry because their toaster isn’t working,” says Bright. Keeping calm and in control of the situation is the goal.
Maybo specialises in conflict management training in sectors including mental health, aged care, hospitals, disability, security and other open workspaces. It teaches physical intervention skills, which do not cause pain, are non-aggressive and, what Maybo managing director Neil Warwick calls, “camera-friendly”.
“Organisations tend to be good at picking up the big incidences,” he says. “Where they are not so good are the drip, drip, drip situations.”
“Staff want to know that their organisation is going to support them,” says Warwick. “If I go to work I want to make sure I am working for someone who values me, looks after me and cares for my safety by whatever means necessary.”